Presidential Inauguration


Moving Forward as the Holy Spirit Directs

Father Sean O. Sheridan
President, Franciscan University of Steubenville

I would like to begin this afternoon by thanking almighty God for bringing us to this day, for bringing each of us here, to this point in our lives; for entrusting to us this University, the great Franciscan University of Steubenville.

I would like to also acknowledge and thank so many people present here today who support the mission of this great University. Our diocesan bishop Most Reverend Jeffrey Monforton and Bishop Emeritus Gilbert Sheldon, both of whom are great friends of Franciscan University; Most Reverend Nicholas Polichnowski, TOR, Minister General of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis; Very Reverend Richard L. Davis, TOR, Minister Provincial of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, especially for his words of welcome; the Board of Trustees of Franciscan University, many of whom I have been blessed to know and to work with on the Board for nearly seven years and in particular I thank Mrs. Jamie McAleer for her inspiring words today; the Franciscan University Board of Advisors; our faculty, with whom I have the pleasure of working with “in the trenches”; our dedicated staff members; our wonderful students for whom this University exists; our alumni who continue to support us even after graduation; the many delegates here from other educational institutions, especially my former boss President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America, my alma mater; the leaders of the city of Steubenville and the many friends of Franciscan University; and members of my TOR Franciscan family, particularly Father Christian Oravec, TOR, and Father Terence Henry, TOR, for their words of encouragement, and Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, our president emeritus, who could not be with us today. I especially thank the members of my own family for being here today some of whom traveled great distances to be here.


In May of 1946, His Excellency John King Mussio, then the Bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville wrote to Very Reverend John Boccello, TOR, Minister Provincial of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis to ask Father Boccello if his friars would come to Steubenville, Ohio to establish a college for the men and women of the Ohio Valley. Father Boccello had recently met Bishop Mussio at the bishop’s ordination and installation as the first bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville. Father Boccello had offered to the newly ordained bishop the services of the TOR Franciscans entrusted to his care. Father Boccello quickly gathered his resources together, and on June 7, 1946, obtained the consent of his Provincial Council to establish the college at the expense of the Province. He assigned Father Daniel Egan, TOR to this ministry and he arrived here in Steubenville on July 2, 1946. Father Dan, with the assistance of several other friars, primarily Father Regis Stafford, TOR, made the necessary arrangements so that the College of Steubenville would open on December 10, 1946 – just more than six months after Bishop Mussio’s initial request for assistance.

The TOR friars came to Steubenville with very limited resources. Yet the one thing that carried them through the challenges and opportunities of establishing a new college was the willingness to trust in Divine Providence and the desire to do the will of God. With its humble beginnings in an old building on Washington Street in downtown Steubenville and an initial enrollment of 258 students, the dream and vision of Bishop Mussio and the early friars has grown into what we now know as Franciscan University of Steubenville. The many friars who have ministered here and to whom I am very grateful have always been at the heart of this mission. From the earliest days of this University there existed between the TOR friars and our diocesan bishop a relationship of trust and a desire to mutually respond to the will of God. The University has also been blessed with the members of the laity who have been very involved in key positions of leadership and have sacrificed for the mission of this University. Throughout all of the transitions that this great University has undergone, a key component of the life of the University has been the willingness of the University community to respond to the Lord’s invitations and to move the University forward as directed by the Holy Spirit.

Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron of this University. I have a picture of him in my office that is directly above my desk. I like to think that he oversees all that I do and will make opportunities to intercede for us and to keep us from getting in the way of God’s plan for this University. Near the end of his earthly life, Francis told his friars: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord our God, for up to now we have done little.” With these words, Francis reminded his followers that we have much to do to respond to the Lord’s call to “rebuild my Church.”

As we move forward in this next chapter of the history of Franciscan University, I believe that there is much more for us to do. I further believe that even though we have seen many of our students being formed to transform the culture through what takes place here at the University we have only seen a glimpse of what God has planned for Franciscan University and for each one of us.

Building on our historical foundation, I remain committed to advancing the mission of the University both as a university dedicated to academic excellence and as a university that is passionately Catholic in its very being. Moreover, as a Catholic university, we do not exist separate and apart from either the Church or our world. We minister together as members of these larger communities and, at appropriate times, have the opportunity to influence these communities by advancing the teachings of the Church or challenging our society when it strays from the truth. As a university that is Catholic, we have an obligation to engage in the dialogue between our culture and the Church.

Every institution needs a mission and a vision to carry out that mission. If we look at Franciscan University’s Mission Statement, it reflects the dual purpose of our institution as a university, but also as a Catholic and Franciscan institution following in the footsteps and teaching of Saint Francis of Assisi. The Mission Statement identifies five general policies that the University embraces: intellectual and faith community; evangelization; dynamic orthodoxy; Christian maturity; and good stewardship. These general policies are, in turn, the bases for more specific policies that address academic matters, student life concerns and outreach. They will not be forgotten.

Each of these purposes and policies – both general and specific – are part of the mission of Franciscan University. For purposes of my address this afternoon I will categorize the University’s mission into two areas: our mission internal to the University and our mission to proclaim the Gospel beyond the University. Each one of us has a role to play in moving these areas forward under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Moving Forward With Our Internal Mission:

In 1990, Blessed Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae directed to Catholic universities. He intended the document to set the framework for the manner in which Catholic institutions of higher learning would deliver their services. In Article 14, of Part I of Ex corde Ecclesiae, John Paul argued that “being both a university and catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.” The two cannot be separated and still fulfill the mission and identity of such an institution as a “Catholic university”. It is in the institution that is truly a university and Catholic at the same time that the dialogue between faith and reason can occur in its fullness, a dialogue that ultimately leads to truth. John Paul maintains that “a vital interaction of two distinct levels of coming to know the one truth leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of human life and of the purpose of God’s creation.” It is this pursuit of the one truth that encourages the faithful to respond to the universal call to holiness that allows us to become the fullness of the men and women that God created us to be.

Here at Franciscan University we will without reservation embrace our obligation to be both an academic institution that promotes scholarship but also a Catholic institution that promotes and integrates its Catholic identity into all aspects of the institution. We are, after all, “Academically Excellent and Passionately Catholic.” Our University community is and will remain focused on Christ who has entrusted to us His mission for this University to be academically excellent and passionately Catholic. Moreover, led by the Holy Spirit, I will continue to foster and develop what it means for us to be academically excellent and passionately Catholic.

To Be Academically Excellent:

When Franciscan University was established in 1946, Bishop Mussio asked for an academic institution that would focus on teaching its students. This desire is reflected in our University bylaws which indicate that our purpose is:

to further the higher education of men and women through liberal, professional, and pre-professional studies leading to the conferral of the baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the arts and sciences. Said degrees will be conferred in accordance with the provisions of the Articles of Incorporation of the University and the laws of the State of Ohio.

Our University Mission Statement follows up on this requirement and indicates that the University was intended primarily to be a teaching institution. Yet, what does it mean today – and for our future – to be an academically excellent teaching institution?

Teaching is certainly an important component of being an academic institution. As a teacher myself, I have always enjoyed being in the classroom to engage in the sharing of ideas with students. They are, after all, the main reason why we have universities and the principal reason why many of us here today have dedicated our lives to education. That is why I decided to continue to teach both graduate and undergraduate students while serving as the President of Franciscan University. Being in the classroom gives a unique opportunity to the teacher to share his or her life with the students on a consistent basis, to be inspired by them, and with God’s grace, to be the presence of Christ for each other even if only for a few hours each week. Moreover, there is nothing quite like walking with students who might have a difficult time grasping a particular concept or idea and then suddenly they come to a more clear understanding of the principles that underlie that concept or idea and they are able to embrace it as their own. Yet, teaching can occur in a variety of academic settings – within and outside of the classroom.

Because of the size of our institution, our students have the frequent opportunity to work side by side with their professors – in the classroom, in the laboratory, and in the public square. The many laboratory classes that I took in my undergraduate studies at a public institution were taught by teaching assistants. It was rare to see a professor outside of the classroom. But at Franciscan University, our students have the opportunity to do research – both for class, but also for independent research projects – alongside their professors and they are encouraged to publish their scholarship or to present the results of their research to the scientific community.

These teaching opportunities are important to the intellectual formation of our students. Yet, it is the human formation that occurs at a Catholic university that is also an essential component of promoting the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. Our professors and many members of our professional staff are very involved in the lives of our students, whether as household advisors, athletic coaches, club advisors or companions for lunch in the cafeteria. The mutual respect and Franciscan joy that surrounds these relationships is unique to Franciscan University and must continue to be fostered.

Franciscan University is truly blessed to have many academically excellent professors here. In addition to teaching full course loads, they do their own research, write scholarly publications, and advocate in the public square. We need to encourage these types of activities as well. We are academically excellent. We need to continue to foster academic excellence among our faculty and students. We need to be more active with being the voice of academic excellence in the public square.

I would like for us to demonstrate further our commitment to academic excellence and to afford to our professors the opportunity to excel in their scholarly work – whatever their area of discipline. This evening we begin an academic symposium on the importance of Catholic Higher Education for the New Evangelization. Additional conferences are planned for the future. Highlighting the academic scholarship of Franciscan University and its contribution to various fields of study will cultivate recognition for the academic excellence for which our faculty members continue to strive. Moreover, I would like to bring back Franciscan University Press to publish scholarly works that promote Franciscan University’s academic excellence.

God has blessed us in so many ways as an academic institution. If we continue to be led by the Spirit to be an excellent academic institution, our willingness to respond to His call will surely be received well by the Father.

To Be Passionately Catholic:

A Catholic university presents itself as separate and distinct from other universities. A key distinguishing factor that separates a Catholic university from other universities is its Catholic identity, which should pervade every aspect of the University’s operations. A visitor to a Catholic university should not have to look for indications that the university is Catholic. It must be evident that such a university is in name and in fact a Catholic university.

In his April 17, 2008, address to Catholic educators in the United States, Pope Benedict XVI, now emeritus, commented on the importance of promoting the Catholic identity of a Catholic educational institution.

A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.

Benedict continued:

Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (cf. Spe Salvi, 23). In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society. They become places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ’s “being for others” (cf. ibid., 28).

With these comments, Benedict intended to motivate Catholic educators to rededicate themselves and their institutions to the promotion of Catholic identity in all aspects of the lives of their institutions. It is apparent that Benedict, himself a former university professor, remained very concerned that Catholic identity should pervade all aspects of the life of a university that promotes itself as a “Catholic university.”

The Franciscan University bylaws clearly indicate that we are to be identified as a “Catholic and a Franciscan institution.” Our Catholic identity is certainly evident. Many years ago when I first visited Franciscan University as a young man interested in discerning the TOR way of life, the first thing I encountered was the Rosary Circle that envelops the cross. The Rosary Circle is at the heart of campus immediately adjacent to Christ the King Chapel, the iconic symbol identified with the University.

The Catholic identity of Franciscan University is not only etched in our flowers or our architecture. It is at the heart of our mission, which in turn is the basis for the decisions we make here, including hiring decisions and curriculum choices that are to be made consistent with the mission of the University. Since 1989, the members of our Theology Department have made the profession of faith and oath of fidelity to the teachings of the magisterium. They were the first theology faculty of a Catholic university to do so. Earlier this summer, I also asked the members of our Philosophy Department to make the profession of faith and oath of fidelity to the teachings of the magisterium. They willingly agreed to do so as did the members of our Sacred Music Program. Inspired by this desire to proclaim publicly their fidelity to the magisterium, the members of the President’s Cabinet also asked if they could make the profession of faith and oath of fidelity. At the beginning of this academic year, at a time when faculty members and administrative staff at some institutions are drifting away from the magisterium, 19 members of our faculty and professional staff publicly proclaimed their fidelity to the magisterium. People who witnessed this event later told me that it brought tears to their eyes to know that they or their child are part of a university that is truly Catholic. I thank Bishop Monforton for receiving their oaths, and especially, I thank all of the members of our University community for their willingness to remain faithful to the magisterium in all that we say and do.

Day in and day out the sacramental life of this University also provides evidence of our Catholic identity. Our students want to participate in the sacraments, particularly the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. They want to participate in daily Eucharistic adoration. Our Masses seem to be especially well attended this year and the chapel is filled to capacity. It is humbling to me as a celebrant of the sacraments to encounter so many students in the sacrament of reconciliation, to see a full chapel for each of our daily Masses and to celebrate Mass with the students in the chapels of their residence halls. To further promote the faith life on campus and the spiritual needs of our university community, it is time for us to build a larger chapel so that more of our students can worship the Lord together.

Being a Catholic university faithful to the magisterium means not only adhering to Church teaching but in some circumstances rejecting the goals of society that are inconsistent with Church teaching. Pope Francis acknowledged in his recent encyclical Lumen fidei that our society is drifting away from the recognition of absolute truths to the point that for many people the truth becomes what is most convenient for them to undertake. In Lumen fidei 25, Pope Francis wrote:

Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age. In contemporary culture, [he continued] … truth is what makes life easier and more comfortable. In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth — and ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant.

Today, we encounter the emergence of an attempt to seek a “more comfortable” truth in our culture when we are confronted with the distorted view of issues such as contraception, abortion, marriage and euthanasia … all contrary to the teachings of the Church. We stand with the successors of the apostles and will continue to fight attempts of our government to violate our religious beliefs and ability to practice our faith. We will continue to be a pro-life institution that fosters the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.

Yet, as Benedict reminded us, our Catholic identity is not dependent upon numbers nor is it solely judged by our orthodoxy. Franciscan University is blessed to have a unique culture that fosters and promotes the development of our students to become the men and women that God created them to be. We must protect our culture. We must defend our culture. We must promote our culture.

Even though I also believe that God has much more planned for us, we must safeguard our culture as we explore options for further development and growth. Such steps need to be undertaken in a deliberate way that allows for growth without jeopardizing our culture. We must remain true to our Catholic identity as a Catholic and Franciscan university.

Moving Forward With Our Mission of Outreach:

In Ex corde Ecclesiae, Blessed John Paul II acknowledged the importance of the Catholic university’s involvement with the Church and the culture in which we live. John Paul described this as an “essential relationship” that enables a Catholic university to participate in the life of the Church at both the universal and local levels. This essential relationship causes a Catholic university to be of service to the Church and the culture while pursuing “a continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society.”

As Benedict XVI reminded us in his apostolic letter Porta Fidei, our faith grows when it is lived as an experience of the love that we have received. Furthermore, faith expands our hearts and enables us to witness to others about the importance of what we believe. And if we open our hearts and minds to listen to the Lord we are able to respond to his invitation to follow him and become his disciples. We, as believers are strengthened by believing.

Franciscan University’s Mission Statement clearly identifies outreach as a principle for the University to pursue through teaching beyond the student body, spiritual renewal and evangelization, especially in the Steubenville area. Our dedication to various mission trips in this city and throughout the world, pilgrimages to places that will reinvigorate the faith life of its participants, conferences on campus and throughout the country has furthered the mission of teaching, renewing and evangelizing members of the body of Christ. We must foster these forms of outreach in assistance to the Church and continue to develop new methods of evangelization in the future. Deeper, more effective means of evangelization will lead others to Christ and will ultimately lead to the transformation of our society.

Franciscan University’s Mission Statement also encourages us to make provisions to educate students who might not otherwise be able to pursue a college education. As both a Catholic and Franciscan university, we should endeavor to make a college education available to all qualified persons. Moreover, while financial aid is essential to making available Catholic higher education, we should consider alternative funding mechanisms, such as growing the endowment, so that our graduates will be able to minister within the Church while able to support their families.


I conclude my address this afternoon by extending to you an invitation. I believe that we have only seen a glimpse of what God has planned for Franciscan University and for each one of us. Father Dan Egan, TOR and the early friars came to Steubenville on a mission to establish a new college for the Ohio Valley. The heroic actions of the friars and their vision for this University continued through the legacies of Father Michael Scanlan, TOR and Father Terence Henry, TOR. We look back at our history and see that we have done great things for our students, our Church and our world. We stand on the shoulders of giants. But we have much more to do.

In addition to the painting of Saint Francis that I have above my desk, I also have a picture of his tomb. It reminds me that Francis has gone home to the Father. It reminds me that Francis left behind his vision for living the Gospel. It reminds me that Francis asked each one of us to do what Christ asks. During his own lifetime, Francis of Assisi certainly did great things for the Church and the world. Yet, Saint Bonaventure writes that as he neared the final hours of his earthly journey and saw the approach of Sister Death, Francis told the friars: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord our God, for up to now we have done little.” Despite all that Saint Francis had done in his life, he recognized that there was so much more that needed to be done.

And so I extend to you – each one of you – an invitation to join with me in serving this vital mission of Franciscan University. Please help me to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to move us forward. Help me to further the dialogue between faith and reason. Help me to form our students who desire to transform a world that is in desperate need of the voice of the Poverello that Saint Francis was for the people of his day. Help me to do something heroic for our students, our Church and our world. Help me to make history at Franciscan University.

May the Lord continue to bless you and hold you close to his Most Sacred Heart. Thank you.

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